11 Apr Critiquing The Sex Industry
Even writing this title scares me. It makes me instantly defensive, and for good reason.
The reason it scares me, and the reason I feel like it will bring up similar reactions in my fellow workers, is because those who are in the industry are well aware of its failings. But when someone from outside the industry brings up “critiquing” our jobs, we know exactly what it means, and it’s not kind or thoughtful or just. No, nearly all of the time it’s non-sex workers and Sex Work Exclusionary Feminists (SWERFs) trying to veil their whorephobic speech with faux sympathy for us. Or just straight-up violence.
Do I think the industry is perfect? Far from it. The sex industry has massive flaws. They’re just quite different to what civilians see as flaws. So who should be critiquing the industry?
With this issue, like all other issues, not everyone’s opinions are relevant. Sex worker allies are (thankfully) able to acknowledge this, but for a lot of the general population get confused. The truth is – not all opinions were created equal, and some of them have a body count.
Let’s look at another industry as an example. If I said that I, a person who has had no experience as a builder, said that I was an expert on the building industry, I’d be laughed out of the room. If I wrote articles on the rampant sexism in the industry, tweeted about the kinds of dangerous injuries that often befall physical labourers, or was paid to speak about trafficking in the labour industry without spending a day in the industry, I’d be seen a laughing stock. I’d probably be driven off of Twitter with death threats.
So why do we take these kinds of people seriously when they talk about sex work, despite having no experience in the industry?
Fear mongering plays a large part. Stories on sex trafficking don’t often pause to make the distinction between sex work and trafficking because it doesn’t benefit their goal of destroying the industry altogether – a goal that harms sex workers as well as endangering those who actually need help. It’s also because the laws often don’t acknowledge the difference, and seek to criminalise either us or our clients, neither of which is productive.
So who is really equipped to critique the industry when it needs to be critiqued?
Well – us, and only us. Sorry ‘bout it.
It stands to reason that we’re the only ones who are in the right position to critically discuss the sex industry, and our specific jobs within the industry. People react badly when you say things like “strippers are experts on being a stripper” or “full service workers are experts on being full service workers” and yet it’s absolutely ridiculous to think that anyone else could possibly have more knowledge than the literal lived experiences of those who rely on the industry for income.
For starters – sex workers know the difference between our jobs and trafficking. (We’re also the ones who show up most for victims of sex trafficking, but that’s another article).
We also live in the industry. It’s our livelihood, and a good portion of our day-to-day lives. We spend a lot of our time at work and online talking about the highs and lows, talking about management, and the legality in our particular state, or how busy it’s been. Sort of like any other job in the world.
Changing rooms in brothels and strip clubs are mini-summits where we’ve addressed our industry’s problems and potential solutions before civilians even realise it’s a problem.
Racism in the industry? You can bet your ass that non-white sex workers have been speaking out about it for longer than you’ve been alive. The lack of services and the stigma surrounding survival or low-income sex workers? They’re doing the work and letting you know what services they need – so put your money where your mouth is. Transphobia in the industry? Trans and gender non-conforming sex workers have been talking about how they are disproportionately affected by violence, so listen.
Each of these groups and their many intersections have been marginalised and pushed to the side when civilians decide the industry needs to be critiqued, yet they’re the people we need to be listening to the most, and centering in our conversations around sex work.
In fact, marginalised voices need to be centered in every discussion. Unsurprisingly, the same issues within the sex industry are many of the same issues we see in every other industry, ever.
When we critique the industry, we need to hold it to the same standards we do builders, or therapists, or masseuses, or anyone else who relies on a specific industry for their income. Unless you’re rich enough not to have to work (and in that case, share the wealth) that probably includes you. So what would happen if we put your industry under a microscope? Is your job above critique?
Even though sex industry workers are at more risk of sexual violence, it’s not the cause or the fault of the sex industry. If rape culture, classism, misogyny, transphobia, racism and ableism – all issues independant of the sex industry – were to disappear overnight, would those rates of violence against sex workers still exist? Of course not. Because the industry itself is not oppressive and corrupt – but the society we live in is.
Those systems of oppression are the things we need to be focused on destroying. Can you imagine if people used the energy they retain for trying to stop sex workers working safely and with respect, and turned it toward actively dismantling the systems that hurt all of us?